Living Cities at the TATE Modern

This display includes a variety of responses to the modern city from artists around the world, ranging from explorations of the built environment to close-up images recording the minutiae of daily life.

Since the nineteenth century, the city has been a rich source of inspiration for artists, providing a subject matter that reflects the attractions, realities, and complexities of urban life. The artworks here date from the 1970s right up to the present day, commenting in various ways on the cities in which the artists themselves have lived and worked.

In particular, the artists reveal aspects of the city that would not be considered part of a traditional overview. Considering characteristics of urban living such as displacement and migration, sub-culture and community, utopian plans for an ideal city, or power and political uprising, they uncover the hidden stories that fall outside of the tourist guidebooks and A-Z maps.

Featuring cities from Shanghai, China, to Ghardaïa, Algeria, and Cairo, Egypt to Los Angeles, the United States, the display shows how artists make parallels and explore differences between the cities in which they find themselves.

From American Surfaces

From American Surfaces

American Surfaces is a series of photographs Stephen Shore took of everyday scenes he encountered on a dedicated road trip across America between 1972 and 1973. This project marked an important stage in his career when the concept of the road trip became integral in his work. Through taking snapshot portraits and documenting urban scenes, hotel interiors, food, and street signage, Shore builds a bold portrait of the social and geographical landscape specific to America during the 1970s. Shore’s work helped establish the medium of colour photography as fine art during this time period.



The Mogamma is the government building in Tahrir Square in Cairo, which formed a backdrop for the protest against Hosni Mubarak’s regime in early 2011. Mehretu has overlaid architectural drawings of the Mogamma with those of other locations associated with public unrest, including Addis Ababa’s Meskel Square and New York’s Zuccotti Park, the site of the ‘occupy’ protests. Using digital images and projecting them onto the surface of the canvas, Mehretu complicates the drawn plans so that we can no longer see them clearly. The resulting painting could be seen as a memorial to collective sites of communal resistance.

Pavilion 2016

Pavillion 2016

Pavilion is inspired by Monika Sosnowska’s research into 1960’s housing estate in Lubin, Poland, which included residential buildings, gardens, retail spaces and cultural centre. Sosnowska’s sculpture echoes the metal latticework of the original shopping pavilion, but it is distorted and collapsed into a functionless architectural fragment. The estate was designed by Oskar and Zofia Hansen according to ‘Open Form’ theory, which aimed to encourage individuals to participate actively in creating their own environment. Pavilion reflects both the failure of these ideal, and the destruction of post-communist Poland’s unwanted modernist buildings.


Welcome to Birdhead Again

Welcome to Birdhead Again

Artists Ji Wiyu and Song Tao collaborate under the name ‘Birdhead’. Their photographs capture and make sense of their home city, Shangai, ranging from sublime cityscapes to portraits of the artists or their friends. Birdhead say that they ‘make local art for local people’, as their work is so much about the city of Shangai and what it feels like to live there. They use analogue rather than digital formats, and print their images only once, so each photograph is unique.

Skin. L’Únité D’Habitation à Berlin

Damián Ortega Skin. L’Únité D’Habitation à Berlin, 1956-1958, Le Corbusier, Berlin, Germany 2007 /// Leather, thread, tattoo ink, graphite on paper

Los Moscos

Los Moscos by Mark Bradford, 2004 /// Mixed media on canvas

This large-scale collage includes materials found by the artist on the streets around his studio in Los Angels, USA. Visually suggestive of aerial maps of sprawling, urban areas, the collage is constructed entirely from paper fragments which, the artist believes, ‘act as memory of things pasted and things past. You can peel away the layers of paper and it’s like reading the streets through the signs’. The work takes its title from a derogatory slang term for migrant day labourers in the San Francisco Bay Area, reflecting the artist’s long-standing interest in the sub-cultures of the inner city.

Go Away Closer, 2007

Go Away Closer

Dayanita Singh presents her photographs in a unique way that is part sculpture, part photobook. Her work introduces the two-room Living Cities display.

Singh describes herself as an inhabitant of ‘continuous cities’, deliberately withholding details about the specific context of her images. The ‘where’ and ‘when’ of photography is its biggest burden, it gets in the way of experiencing the magic of the image in ‘itself’, she has said.


Catch it at the TATE Modern – Blavatnik Building Level 4 West


Photography 2017 ©BG-Martin

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